Ramadan Plan : Know, Worship, Strive

Suggested action points for a successful Ramadan.

The Male is Not Like the Female : Gender Equity and Quran 3:36

(iii) “The male is not like the female”

The Quran recounts to us the story of the pious woman who, while pregnant, vowed to dedicate the coming child to the service of God. She had been expecting a son (who could serve in the Temple at Jerusalem), but went on to deliver a daughter. It is at this time that she (or God, according to a different reading) remarks, “The male is not like the female.” The statement is not clear-cut in indicating overall preference for either one of the genders.

Language-wise, there are three possibilities, and each of these views is a position held among Muslim scholars:

  1. to indicate preference for the male, i.e. the male is not like the female, he has the advantage of being able to serve in the temple (under Jewish ritual law) without the monthly menstrual interruption [Mawardi, and many other scholars of exegesis]
  2. to indicate preference for the female, i.e. the male I wanted is not like the female God gave me; God’s choice is necessarily better [Zamakhshari, Abu Hayyan; two prominent exegetes, both of whom are heavyweights in the Arabic language]
  3. to not imply any preference either way (simply that they are different), like red is not like green, nor is green like red. [Ibn Hazm]

Even if one takes the first or second interpretation, it is still contextual, and cannot be a proof-text for overall superiority of one gender, because:

From this post, along with the preceding three (1 2 3), it is clear that the Quran does not teach intrinsic superiority of either of the two genders. Certainly, an ordinary believing man cannot claim superiority over the prophetesses and spiritual heavyweights like Mary and Fatimah. Rather, the criterion is piety: “Indeed, the most noble of you before God is the most pious.” And believing men and women are expected to support, protect and help one another – not to deride nor to oppress one another (despite what too often happens in some Muslim societies).

— Suheil Laher

Not in God's Name

Human history, one might conclude from the Bible and Quran, is an ongoing struggle against the human tendencies towards evil and polytheism. The late Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah censures his people for (among other transgressions) sacrificing their children to the Ammonite god Molekh. Much earlier, such child sacrifices are already condemned in the Pentateuch, and Leviticus 20:3 describes this ritual as profaning (חַלֵּל) God’s holy name. The Hebrew root for ‘profaning’ H-L-L, has an Arabic cognate, which is found in a Quranic verse (5:2) warning believers not to profane (تحلوا) God’s religious symbols, days, rituals and devotees. A famous Biblical prohibition against taking God’s name in vain (although it uses different wording) has been interpreted in various ways, many of which prohibit associating God’s name with sinful acts (be they lies, idolatrous rituals or anything else sinful). So, God’s name can be profaned by both explicit and implicit association with evil.

A famous hadith says that, “Any matter of importance that is not begun with God’s name is defective,” and observant Muslims are in the habit of reciting God’s name at the beginning of prayer, before eating, and when about to undertake any major action – provided of course the act is something religiously lawful. The hadith’s specification that the teaching applies to matters of importance implies that trivial matters should not be started with God’s name, in order to preserve the sanctity of the Name by not taking it in vain. Clearly, then, the name of God should not be recited before sinful actions, and in fact to do so is considered an act of blasphemy and apostasy by Muslim legal scholars. (They make an exception for someone who says it out of habit, without presence of mind, because he did not consciously intend to associate the name of God with the sin. In Shakespeare’s poem, The Rape of Lucrece, Tarquin stops at Lucrece’s door to pray before entering to rape her, “As if the heavens should countenance his sin.” “But in the midst of his unfruitful prayer,“ Tarquin realizes:

The powers to whom I pray abhor this fact;

How can they then assist me in the act? )

If the Hebrew prophets of yore were to witness our times, they would likely inveigh against the many social and ethical ills of today. And while child sacrifice is (thankfully) no longer prominent, there is a bane of our times that is evocative of its horrific disdain for the sacredness of life. Of course, I am referring to the acts of wanton killing and terrorism that (sadly) appear to be increasingly common. Major sins, like rape and murder, are certainly an act of implicit profanation of God’s name, and if someone (God forbid) explicitly utters God’s name upon it, the profanation becomes even greater.

 

When Caliph `Ali heard the Kharijites chanting the slogan, “Judgment is only God’s,” he is reported to have said, “It is a statement of truth by which falsehood is intended.” So, if a murderer shouts “Allahu Akbar” / “God is Great” / “Elohim Gadol” over his murder, those who truly understand God’s teachings might well shake their heads, and respond much as Caliph `Ali did. Yes God is indeed greater; greater than to defile His name by your profane sin of murder; greater than to not hold murderers responsible. We will not allow criminals to appropriate our sacred language. God is truly Great.

This World is the Root of All Blessings

Earth observations

Image courtesy of NASA;http://d3.static.dvidshub.net/media/thumbs/photos/1210/680029/445x450_q95.jpg

By Suheil Laher

Do you love the life of this world? Is a Muslim allowed to love it? The answer is YES. It is well-known that Muslims are not supposed to renounce the world; monasticism is not an ideal (as a hadith explicitly mentions), and in the Qur’an we are taught to pray for “good in the world and good in the Hereafter” [Qur’an, 2:201]. Yet, we find some passages of the Qur’an, and some hadiths, that are very critical of al-hayat al-dunya (often translated as “the life of this world”; I return below to a more expressive translation). Nevertheless, there is no contradiction or paradox here. In reality, the life of this world is not what is evil; the confusion comes from not taking account of lexicological and theological context . A complete condemnation of and renouncement of this world is not the correct Muslim attitude, and is dangerous and harmful to human existence.

Let’s look at one of the verses that paints al-hayat al-dunya negatively:

Know that the life of this world’ is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children – like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion.” [Qur’an, 57:20]

Fakhruddin al-Razi (d. 606/1209) began his exegesis of this verse with a comment that might seem audacious, for he seems to be claiming the opposite of what the verse tells us:

“Know that the life of this world is wisdom and rectitude, and a blessing; in fact, the root of all blessings.” [Razi, Al-Tafsir al-Kabir]

Razi was not a closet heretic; rather, he is reminding readers that the life of this world has different dimensions, and that the verse is discussing only one of these aspects. So it is true, as he goes on to discuss, that this life can be:

la`ib: play, like children engage in, tiring themselves without any benefit (i.e. without any goal or achievement),

lahw: a diversion, such as adults may engage in but which results in regret,

zinah: an adornment, which can only be necessary to beautify ugliness

At the same time, God has created this world for us [Qur’an, 2:29], not without purpose [Qur’an, 23:115], and so it is not meaningless or in vain. Razi then contextualizes the verse’s dispraise by quoting Ibn `Abbas (d. 68/687), the famous exegete from the Prophet’s companions:

“The meaning [of the verse] is that the disbeliever is busy all his life seeking the adornment of this world without working for the Hereafter.”


Hanbali theologian Hafiz Ibn Rajab (d. 795/1392) further clarifies the scope of the condemnation conveyed by this verse and similar texts. He observes that the condemnation:

– is not of the place of this world, for God has made it an abode and a cradle for human civilization [Qur’an, 20:53, etc.]

– nor of the natural phenomena in this world (such as mountains, seas, rivers, vegetation and animal life), for God has created them as blessings, and as great signs, which through reasoning and reflection yield profound insights regarding the Oneness of God

– nor of the time of this world, for God has made the alternation of night and day a reminder for those who ponder and are grateful. [Qur’an, 25:62]

Hence, he concludes that the condemnation of al-hayat al-dunya (“the life of this world”) is a condemnation of the evil deeds committed therein by human beings; deeds which lack benefit and/or cause harm. [Ibn Rajab, Jami` al-`Ulum wal-Hikam]

This world is deceptive (e.g. Qur’an, 35:5), Ibn Rajab continues, in the sense that its pleasures do not endure; youth yields to old age, the healthy become sick, the wealthy may be reduced to poverty, the mighty might be abased. A person may spend the greater part of his life saving money and making plans for the future, only to die leaving it all behind. Similarly Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350) mentions how “this world” is like an elusive shadow, a mirage or a dream. In a (much earlier) saying from Ibn `Abbas, the pursuit of the superficial things of this world is likened to the pursuit of an ugly hag who has adorned herself in pretty clothes.

It is in this context of ephemerality (especially in comparison with the unending state of existence after death, the world Hereafter), and as a reminder not to neglect the deeper realities and more meaningful dimensions of existence, that we must understand the Qur’anic condemnation of al-hayat al-dunya (I return below to a more accurate translation than ‘the life of this world’.) It is not a renouncement, a trivialization, or a blanket condemnation of everything of this life.

This has always been the understanding of leading scholars. Thus, while it is true that Caliph Ali would say, “O world! Go and deceive someone else!” nevertheless it is also reported that he scolded a man for cursing the world: Don’t curse this world, for the world contains the mosques devoted to God’s worship; the world is the place God honored by sending down revealed guidance, and it contains angels who are engaged in God’s obedience; the world is a marketplace for the believer (wherein he achieves good and thereby earns the life of eternal happiness). In this light, the ascetic of Rayy, Yahya ibn Mu`adh (d. 258/871) said, “How can I not love a world in which there is apportioned to me sustenance by which I can earn a life in which I obey God and thereby attain the Hereafter.” In fact, in a hadith we are told that even the most pious believers, the persons loved by God, love this life (“He hates death, and [God] hates to displease him.”).

How to translate al-hayat al-dunya?

As I mentioned earlier, a part of the confusion about the role of and attitude to this world comes from translating al-hayat al-dunya simply as “the life of this world”. Let’s look closer at the two Arabic words involved. Al-hayat does mean life, but al-dunya is not, strictly speaking “the world” (which would normally be al-`alam). Dunya is a superlative from the Arabic root d-n-(w/y), which has two meanings: one of nearness and the other of lowness and contemptibility. [See: Ibn al-Manzur’s classical lexicon Lisan al-`Arab] So al-hayat al-dunya is literally “the Nearest Life,” (by comparison with the Hereafter, which is temporally further away), but also potentially “the Lowest Life.” The latter translation is powerful in that it captures the underlying concepts discussed earlier in this article. So, let’s plug this back into our previous translation of [Quran, 57:20]:

“Know that the Lowest Life is play, and diversion, and….”

Thus, there are parts of this world — the more profoundly meaningful ideas, as well as beneficial acts and good deeds done with the correct motivation — that are not part of al-hayat al-dunya. We have already seen this implicitly contained in the statements of scholars quoted above, and to this we can add that the classical exegesis Tafsir al-Jalalayn states that “[good] deeds of obedience to God, and everything that assists in that,” are not part of the dunya but rather of the Hereafter. In English, we have the (similar, although perhaps narrower) term “low life” that carries similar connotations to dunya. A view from mystical Judaism considers this world – with its pain, suffering and death – as the “lowest” possible world that still reflects the attributes of divine goodness and mercy.

Rise Above the Lower Life

The correct attitude to this life is to keep striving to ascend to higher things, spiritually and morally.

“To [God] ascend the good words, and the righteous deeds lift them up.” [Qur’an, 35:10]

The five daily prayers – which according to the hadiths were prescribed upon Muslims on the Night of the Heavenly Ascent (Mi`raj) – are your personal opportunity for a private ascent to communicate with your Creator. In a hadith, we are told that the the Highest Assembly of Angels was arguing about the three expiators of sins (kaffarat) and the three deeds of rank (darajat). In order to ascend upwards, you need to first break free of the shackles of “the lowest life,” and your past sins are those shackles. This lift-off is achieved through the three expiators: performing ablution properly under difficulty, walking by foot to congregational prayer, and waiting for one prayer after the next. But in between we need to strive in the “worldly” domain too, and to continue the ascent there, as two of the three deeds of rank show: spreading peace and feeding others. Spreading peace is not limited to using the Islamic greeting of salam; rather it is merely a start of striving for global peace, and likewise we desire the eradication of poverty and hunger. The third deed of rank, “praying by night while people are asleep,” (a non-obligatory, but praiseworthy deed), is a reminder that the ascent cannot be achieved only by deeds that benefit others, unless the individual develops his/her own spirituality and relationship with the Creator.

So, to recap, this world is not evil, and not to be renounced. The Qur’an portrays the world as a blessing from God, full of tremendously profound and beautiful signs of God’s existence and oneness, and a place with potential for great good. The Prophet has said, “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” [Narrated by Muslim] The condemnation is of the lowest life, a pursuit of the fleeting without concern for deeper values, and without acknowledging God and the eternity that is far greater (indeed, infinitely so, in mathematical terms) than this finite world. This world should be appreciated appropriately, which includes striving upward to make it a better place. An insular lack of concern for this, even in the guise of religiosity, is contradictory to the mission of humankind on this earth; the task of furthering good, and fostering and handing on a constructive, beneficial civilization (see: Qur’an, 67:2, 2:30, 11:61, 7:129).

A key to escaping the lowest life is: not to allow the mundane to become profane.

Perverted Priorities : Who Is and Isn't a Muslim?

concepts,courts,decisions,gavels,government,judgment,law,metaphors,silhouettesBy Suheil Laher

 

“If you don’t convert to (my sect) you might as well not convert to Islam!” exclaimed the ‘uncle’ to the young Christian lady. The lady’s husband, a Muslim, had requested his elder friend (despite his different school of thought in Islam) to come and help explain to her why Islam is so important to her husband, and why he’d like her, too, to share in its joy. The husband was startled by this narrow-minded bombshell. The shocking words of the ‘uncle’ highlight a lack of priorities plaguing some of those who profess themselves to be Muslim.

[….]

More specifically, some Muslims are sometimes (and any frequency is too often for something this important) too quick to declare someone to be outside the fold of Islam due to (i) imperfect practice, or (ii) disagreement on a non-core belief (e.g. whether and when capital punishment is mandated for apostasy, or stoning for adultery)

Read full article on MuslimMatters.orgMuslimmatters.org

Justice : A Taxonomy

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Justice involves putting everything in its appropriate place, and giving each his/her/its due right.

“God commands you that you restore deposits to their owners, and, when you judge between mankind, that you judge justly. How excellent is the teaching that God gives you! Surely, God is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” [Qur’an 4:58]

“The just ones will be, before God, on pulpits of light….those who are just in their judgment, their families, and what they are in charge of.’ [Muslim]

For convenience, we can subdivide justice into the following categories:

1.      Justice to God

“I hate ingratitude more in a person; than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness, or, any taint of vice whose strong corruption inhabits our frail blood.” [Shakespeare, Twelfth Night] Read more

On Justice

Below are some brief notes on Justice in Islam. Neither the list of points, nor the scriptural texts quoted, are intended to be exhaustive. The topic is clearly more vast than to be encompassed in a brief note such as this.

·                     Justice is a central value – if not the central value – in Islam

“Verily, Allah commands justice, kindness and giving to relatives, and prohibits shamefulness, wrong and transgression. He instructs you that you might take heed.” [Qur’an, 16:90]

`Abdullah ibn Mas`ud, the Companion, held this verse to the most comprehensive verse of the Qur’an.

The themes of divine justice, particularly in the Hereafter, and of the imperative for human justice, can be found in a large number of verses.

·                     Justice is also one of the attributes of Allah

“Allah does not do injustice [even to the extent] of an atom’s weight.” [Qur’an, 4:40] Read more

On Hadith Authentication

How do hadith scholars grade ahadith? Do they all share the same criteria or are there different views? Have they restricted their efforts to scrutiny of the chain of narration (isnad), or did they take the content (matn) into consideration too? What should I do if I am troubled by the content of a particular hadith?


There is general agreement amongst hadith scholars on the criteria for hadith authentication. Some criteria relate to the transmission (isnad), and others to the content (matn).

Transmission Criteria

There are five principal conditions which must be satisfied for the isnad. Lack of any of these conditions generally implies weakness in the narration. (However, weakness does not necessarily imply uselessness or total rejection of the narration. There are different grades of weak narration. As in a court of law, even a dubious witness’ testimony, though not totally credible, might still cast some light on matters.) Read more

Pluralism and Tolerance

“Why should there be more than one religion? Are all religions true? Are some truer than others? Can religion aspire to function as a positive force in the world?”[1] Thus does a leading contemporary academic identify some of the major questions posed by human curiosity. The relationship between religions is something that has long drawn the attention of theologians, scholars and historians, and in today’s global context of increased mutual awareness of and interaction between religions, the subject is of still greater practical relevance. Without detracting from this, I will assert that it behooves every individual to ponder upon such questions in the context of their own spiritual quest, and that indeed, that is ultimately the more important dimension of such enquiry.

Humility is an essential attitude in anyone claiming to be religious; so too in the seeker, and even, I proffer, in the skeptic. We must be humble before God (or at least before truth and reality, for one who has not yet acknowledged God), realizing our frailty, our own limitations of knowledge, our shortcomings and the uncertainty of our final state. We must also exhibit humility toward our fellow human beings, and not be so presumptuous as to regard ourselves as absolute judges (let alone assume the roles of judge, jury and executioner) over other individuals. Read more

Death and the Grave

“And the agony of death comes with the Truth;  that is what you used to flee from!”  [Qur’an, 50:19]

Death is the separation of the soul from the body, and we all know that it is inevitable.  It is the event which marks our transition from this world into the Hereafter.  Whenever `Uthman (may Allah be well pleased with him) used to stand over a grave, he used to weep until his beard became soaked.  Someone said to him, “Heaven and Hell are mentioned, and you do not weep, and [yet] the grave is mentioned, and you weep, [how is this] ?”  He said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) say : The grave is the first stage of the Hereafter.  So, if he is saved from it, that which is after it will be easier, whereas if he is not saved from it, then that which is after it will be more severe.”  (Narrated by Tirmidhi)

Belief in the events following death is an integral part of the Islamic doctrine.  Although the existence of the Hereafter is rationally admissible, the exact details of it can only be acquired through communication from the Creator, for these events fall in the realm of the Unseen. Read more

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